CNCounty News

County pen pal program helps developmentally disabled residents

(L-r): Lynn Carey and Maggie Purvis meet after becoming pen pal friends.

Key Takeaways

Lynn takes a break from a long day of work at the hospital to grab her mail: Office promotions, a Grainger catalogue and a letter from Maggie. She’s been waiting for this all month.

“dear lynn, I’ve been good. I absolutely despise winter cause of the cold. I perfer summer when it’s warm. I had a good Christmas and new year. My favorite part was opening presents with my brother. I love Christmas music. My favorite song is all i want for Christmas is you. I love that photo of your horse, i love horses.

hope your doing well too.

-sincerely maggie”

Lynn Carey, a site manager of pulmonary services at Marion General Hospital, and Maggie Purvis, a high school freshman with autism, have been mailing each other letters back and forth for six months. They were paired together through a Marion County Board of Developmental Disabilities pen pal program with Marion General Hospital. 

“Nothing is harder than writing to somebody you don’t know,” Lynn said. “We just started with ‘Hi,’ who you are and what your interests are … I don’t think you need to have a magic formula, as long as you care and you’re curious.”

They both share a Christian faith and love for animals and reading. Lynn has a horse, Stone, and Maggie has a “Cavapoo” (a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Poodle mix dog) named Precious. Lynn likes murder mysteries, while Maggie is a fan of fantasy fiction; she dreams of being an author and has written five chapters of a fantasy novel about a girl who discovers she has secret powers.   

One of the best parts of having a pen pal is having something to look forward to, Maggie said.

“Sometimes it’s not always easy talking to someone face-to-face,” Maggie said. “And when you’re sending letters, you don’t have that issue.”

Sharing things about yourself — your dreams, your interests — can be daunting, and having the opportunity to express yourself through writing can be less overwhelming, especially for people on the spectrum, said Vanessia Purvis, Maggie’s mom. 

Nicole Workman, director of communications at Marion County Board of Developmental Disabilities, came up with the idea for the pen pal program. She had a pen pal she met at camp when she was 7 who she has kept in touch with throughout her life, and she was even a bridesmaid in her wedding. The pen pal program has matched 90 people together based on common interests and backgrounds, and they correspond monthly.

“They just love that letter in the mail, ’cause who gets letters in the mail for fun?” she said. “People don’t even send Christmas cards anymore, so it’s just so exciting for them to get something in the mail that’s specifically for them — that is a person who is wanting to learn who they are, and just have a relationship with them.”

In a world where everyone communicates through text or email, there’s something special about finding the perfect card or stationery and taking the time to write to someone, Lynn said. 

“I think every kid wants to be noticed, recognized and appreciated for who they are, especially [those] with developmental disabilities,” Lynn said. “To feel like you matter to somebody is huge.”

Lynn and Maggie met for the first time in-person last month at the Marion County Board of Developmental Disabilities. After embracing each other in a hug, Maggie said, “Look what I’m wearing today!” clutching a friendship bracelet Lynn had sent her in the mail. “I’m really excited, I’ve been looking forward to this for a week,” she added. 

“The first time they met, I knew Maggie was nervous, because she was stimming,” Vanessia said. “She was playing with her fingers, she didn’t even realize she was doing it, but that eventually gave way and there were hugs and laughter.”

Although there are decades between them, Maggie said Lynn is just like any other friend. “The funny thing is, they don’t teach them cursive anymore, so I had to back off on how I write,” Lynn said. When the two met, Maggie wore a shirt that reads “If You Can Be Anything, Be Kind.”

“I love seeing her smile because she’s made a friend,” Vanessia said. “For her, it’s not easy to make close relationships or friends, because sometimes, kids can be a little cruel. ‘You don’t like the same things that I do’ or ‘You’re a little different than me’ type of thing. 

“But when you’re doing a pen pal program, that all kind of goes to the side, and you actually get to know the person instead of judging them.”

After a local news station shared footage of Maggie and Lynn’s first-time meeting, the Marion County Board of Developmental Disabilities received an influx of requests to join the pen pal program. The county board is working with an alternative charter high school in the area, Buckeye Community School, to establish pen pal relationships between teens in the school and teens served by the Board of Developmental Disabilities.

“I think that would be a really good idea,” Maggie said. “Because not only can it help kids my age make friends and bond with people their own age, it’ll also help them develop social skills they’ll need later in life.”

Maggie and Lynn have plans to get ice cream next month (Maggie’s looking forward to ordering chocolate with candy eyeballs), and there’s also been talk of Maggie getting to meet Lynn’s horse, Stone. Lynn shared a photo of Stone, “a rescue boy” she co-owns with a friend, with Maggie in one of her letters, “because it’s part of my life,” she said. 

“Part of doing this is sharing yourself,” Lynn said. “If she wouldn’t have been receptive or would have went, ‘Oh, OK,’ then I probably wouldn’t have shared more. But she was so excited. It’s just like any relationship, learning each other as you go.”

Maggie, who has autism, ADHD and sensory issues, has difficulty writing, and she does most of her work on a computer, but another bonus of having a pen pal is that it’s helped improve her writing, Vanessia said. Having Lynn as a pen pal has been wonderful for Maggie, Vanessia noted: “I really kind of feel like it was a God thing.”

“Every time I say ‘Honey, you’ve got a letter’ and when she sees who it is, that big smile comes right up on her face and she just goes and reads it,” Vanessia said. “And she saves them. Every card she gets, every letter, she’s saving them.”

Lynn said having Maggie as a pen pal has been just as great of an experience for her: “I’m in for the long haul. As long as she wants to write, I’m there.”

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